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Playing in Ivey's League

Phil Ivey, one of the world’s best poker players, has parlayed his card skills into a high-end, jet-setter’s lifestyle.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Phil Ivey, March/April 2010

(continued from page 3)

Meanwhile, Ivey was making noise in Las Vegas as well. During 2000, he won his first World Series of Poker bracelet by outplaying Amarillo Slim heads up in the $2,500 pot limit Omaha event. Slim, at the time, was known for being extremely tough in the final stage of a tournament. He had a knack for endlessly chatting, putting people off their games, and extracting information that players would be best off not releasing. Despite a four-to-one chip deficit against Slim, Ivey carved up the veteran pro in less than an hour. At a post-game conference, he offered little more than a three-word sound bite-"It feels good"-before walking off with his bracelet, quite possibly in search of a good cash game.

Ivey's out-of-nowhere upset may have surprised casual observers, but the poker cognoscenti were already on to him. "Phil has a higher pain tolerance than anyone in poker," says Howard Lederer who claims to have been the first poker pro to recognize Ivey's potential. "When you play a high-stakes poker game, you always need to make the right decision, but in the back of your mind you sometimes wonder how much you will hate losing a quarter-of-a-million dollars if that right decision is a bluff that may not work out. Sometimes you'll catch Phil trying to pull off those kinds of plays. But then you see that the loss doesn't hurt him, and it's scary. You recognize that you can't get Phil to back off."

Greenstein recalls the precise moment when he saw Ivey grow into being the player that he is today. Among the top pros he now went up against, Ivey became known for playing more aggressively than would seem optimal. But then, during a session at the Bellagio in 2004, Ivey began capitalizing on his reputation. "I distinctly remember one day when other players did not give Phil enough credit," says Greenstein. "That day, after the game, I said to Phil, ‘These people are in trouble.' They will pay off when he is there with a hand, and then, if they tighten up, he will run them over. I saw Phil go to that next level, and it was definitely a landmark day in his career."

More recently, the successful online pro Phil Galfond had a firsthand run-in with Ivey's ability to quickly adapt and change it up. They were playing $300/$600 no-limit hold'em on FullTilt and Galfond sensed that Ivey was check-raising too frequently, thus inducing Galfond to fold potentially winning hands. He viewed the gambit as a mistake and began reraising Ivey's check-raises. "What I underestimated," Galfond told me, "is how quickly Phil adjusts." By the time Galfond began taking advantage of Ivey's so-called mistake, Ivey had already tightened his game, and, in turn, took money from Galfond on the other end of the play.

This anecdote illustrates the kind of razor sharp, resilient mind that has allowed Ivey to beat the best poker players in the world. His stakes have risen to the so-called nosebleed levels and so have the rewards that come with success. Ivey currently owns two Rolls Royce Phantoms and a $500,000 Mclaren. He's seen the world and golfed on its finest courses. Ivey splashes around money as if life is a giant poker game in which everything has a price, whether it's to get extra-personalized service from a hotel butler, convince a teetotaler to take two shots of tequila (that endeavor ran $10,000), or bribe a chef to open a closed steakhouse as he did in Montreal.

Chris Lorenzo remembers the aftermath of a massive sushi and sake spree at the Bellagio: "Phil had $12,000 in his hands and told the waiter to take his tip. This waiter didn't know what to do and called over the manager. Phil held out his palms full of $100 bills. Finally the waiter dipped in and took like $6,000. As we were exiting, Phil joked, ‘Man, that guy has big hands.' "

Nolan Dalla, the media director of the World Series of Poker, remembers playing a round of golf with Ivey and a couple of other guys at the elite Shadow Creek-which Ivey treats so casually that it might as well be his favorite county course-and somebody in the foursome mentioned that his caddy happened to be the son of a well-regarded Nevada senator. Dalla acted like it was a big deal. Ivey deadpanned, "If the senator was your caddy, then I'd be impressed."

As when he responded to his driver's marriage proposal at the front desk of Aria, Ivey was joking on the golf course. But, on some level, he also wasn't joking. As I've been told by people close to Ivey, it takes a lot to impress him.

Back inside Phil Ivey's suite, wine is flowing. Cigars are being smoked down and Ivey comments that they get better as you go deeper. He's right about that. A businessman friend of his has just popped by, lunch gets ordered, and the two hosts scramble to see if they can score Ivey a couple of seats in a private box for tonight's Black Eyed Peas concert at Mandalay Bay. Ivey's got his driver making arrangements for the private jet that will fly him to Cabo San Lucas for a quick get-away that precedes a string of upcoming tournaments.

In Ivey's world, a heady mix of hard-core gambling, highly calculated poker play, and sybaritic luxuries all meld together and feed off of one another. Thanks to online poker, he can buy into massive games from anywhere in the world and thanks to the largess of casino comps, he can often fly there gratis. So Ivey moves with the wind and has attained a position in life where he only does what he feels like doing. It affords him the air of a cool cat and a free spirit-albeit one who's under a self-imposed gun to keep betting money and continue winning it. To do anything else, seemingly, would go against Ivey's very nature. Almost built into his DNA is an understanding of odds and opportunities and a bottomless desire to continually exploit them.

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